There's much to be said about the rare opportunity to dine in denim with an ahh-inducing view of Camelback Mountain — too bad I couldn't say a word of it at the table. I was too busy shoveling forkfuls of pan borracho, or drunk bread, a glorious baked concoction of white wine-soaked cubed French bread covered in Parmesan, Fontina, and Pecorino cheeses, into my mouth.
Hard to believe I used to call this building "the purple place."
The purple place, a boarded-up and graffiti-covered Arcadia eyesore since 2006, is now painted green and home to Kitchen 56, the name a nod to its location at 56th Street and Indian School Road. The space opened as Vatra Grillhouse in August of last year and was re-launched five months later after a less-than-stellar reception. The third and most recent transition came when the restaurant lost chef Peter DeRuvo to Prado, closing its doors in January and opening in February as Kitchen 56 with a new concept and new chef — Jonathan Stonis, formerly of Fox Restaurant Concepts — at the helm.
3433 North 56th Street
Hours: 11 a.m. to close Tuesday through Friday; 10 a.m to close Saturday and Sunday
Salami and sopresatta sandwich: $9
Arcadia pie: $13
Steak frites: $18
Like a peaceful neighborhood rest stop, Kitchen 56 greets guests with an open, spacious interior that's as welcoming as the gracious, friendly, and casual confidence found in the atmosphere, service, and food.
A full-service gas station from 1961 to 1988, then an automotive repair shop until 2006, when the location was boarded up, Kitchen 56 pays considerable homage to its provenance: The steel ceiling beams from the original structure remain exposed, and the former service station's bays in the dining room provide healthy doses of natural light and spectacular views of Camelback.
A pebbled entryway and wall-size blackboard, covered with playful doodles of the restaurant's wine and food selections, invite guests to take a seat in the dining room, bathed in olive green, brown, and splashes of cream, or at the bar, where a large window opens up to a lounge-worthy outdoor patio, complete with wall fountain and ping-pong table. A wall-size black-and-white photo of the Humble/Enco station (circa 1960s) and a vintage "Humble" sign hanging next to the bar remind diners of the building's historical significance to the neighborhood.
If the atmosphere doesn't make you want to sit down, the aroma of slow-roasted pork will.
I followed my nose and ordered up an appetizer of griddled corn cakes topped with pulled pork. Cooked low and slow, the smoke-and-rub flavors of the pork shone through a modest smattering of sweet sauce atop moist, flattened corn cakes, filled with pale yellow kernels. The chicken wings — baked, fried, and then grilled — brought the heat (as well as the garlic), but I found myself daydreaming about Kitchen 56's "nearly famous" drunk bread as a more satisfying and shareable selection.
The menu offers everyday American comfort food and a few Italian favorites. Slow-smoked pulled pork, Angus burgers with butter pickles, and baked mac and cheese sit alongside wood-fired pizzas topped with spicy salami, sausage and San Marzano sauce, handmade pappardelle, traditional veal meatballs, and grilled Ahi tuna with eggplant caponata. Look closer and you'll find a touch of Asian influence, as well — especially in such dishes as the edamame appetizer in shallots, oyster, and soy sauce; cornmeal-crusted calamari with Thai peanut and miso caramel sauce; and tempura-battered tofu with vegetables and buckwheat soba noodles.
Although the restaurant opened for lunch just a few weeks ago, a simple yet solid selection of noontime fare may just be what Kitchen 56 does best. For an uncomplicated yet vibrant salad, there was the Arcadia, featuring fresh apple slices, cranberries, pecans, and blue cheese lightly dressed with perky citrus vinaigrette. Onion marmalade put the "D" in my deluxe burger, mixing sweetness with earthy roasted mushrooms, Fontina cheese, and a patty grilled to perfection — if only the brioche bun had held it together longer.
And though the fried egg and smoked turkey sandwich brought a nice bit of breakfast to lunch, the salami and sopresatta sandwich was the star of my midday meal. Piled high and proud with cured sausage, coleslaw, Fontina cheese, and crunchy pickled onions between two not-too-thick slices of sourdough, this sammie may not be overly unique, but who cares when you're this happy? Hand-cut fries, which accompany most of the lunchtime selections, were inconsistent, running the gamut from limp to perfect to overcooked.
Dinners at Kitchen 56 proved a bit dicey, but there are some standout selections. The Arcadia pie was a pleasing wood-fired pizza, with goat cheese, leeks, scallions, garlic, and bacon atop a thin, light crust. And though the Santa Fe chicken breast was dry and the celery root puree atop the cabernet-braised short ribs too salty (even moreso than the dish's oversalted spinach), the steak frites, featuring a 10-ounce hanger steak soaked in balsamic vinaigrette and soy sauce, was a stunner. For pasta, there was that crazy-good slow-roasted pork again, this time with tomatoes and herbed ricotta clinging to handmade pappardelle demanding to be devoured with the same zeal as the pork.
Dessert? Oh, yes, you'll want some. At Kitchen 56, two sweet treats are not to be missed. The molten sticky toffee pudding cake, moist and dripping with white icing, graciously included pieces of fresh fruit to mop up what little was left of the rich, dark chocolate sauce. And the kick of crispy crust beneath the chocolate peanut butter mousse was like a decadent mash-up of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup and a Whatchamacallit.
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On all my visits to Kitchen 56, the knowledgeable, fun, and friendly staff made me feel like an instant regular.
Servers and bartenders showed an enthusiastic flair and sense of humor, whether guiding me through the affordable list of wines and cocktails (I settled on a glass of Carpe Diem Cabernet Sauvignon by Dominus but passed on the "Pickle Back," a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon served alongside a shot of Jameson with a pickle juice chaser — amazing, one patron told me. But, c'mon, respect the whiskey), describing the restaurant's dishes, or demonstrating with a wink how to properly shake my to-go bag of zeppoles to coat the balls of fried dough with cinnamon sugar ("It's a difficult process").
And they made sure to let me know that if I loved the food, I could send the kitchen a six-pack of PBR for 10 bucks, which would lead the cooks to ring a bell.